Grow Your Library: Recommended Plant Books

February 29, 2020

Revised from July 2018


What are your favorite plant books?

- Santa Fe County Extension Master Gardener Trainee


I love this question. In summer 2018, Extension Master Gardener Lin Yeskie was looking for recommendations while revamping a Master Gardener volunteer library. So, I wrote a column about my favorites and surveyed other experts for their suggestions. I’ve recently updated our collective recommendations:

I still try to keep an edition--any edition--of Robert DeWitt Ivey's Flowering Plants of New Mexico with me as I travel around the state. Every plant in the book includes a hand-drawn image of the flowering structures and leaves, and a zoomed-in portion of the plant if there are distinguishing characteristics to be found. In the introduction, Ivey explains that he made most of the drawings from fresh or live plants during their flowering period and includes the location and date. A miniature map of New Mexico also accompanies each drawing, with a shaded area depicting the general distribution range. I love that sense of connection to time and place when I see a beautiful flower on a hiking trail near Cloudcroft on July 4 and then find it in this book with Ivey's note saying he found it in bloom on July 16 in the same national forest.

Other reference books I keep nearby include Pests of the West by Whitney Cranshaw (recommended by NMSU Extension Entomology Specialist Dr. Carol Sutherland) and Weeds of the West published by the Western Society of Weed Science in coordination with the Western United States Land Grant Universities Cooperative Extension Service. Insects and Diseases of Woody Plants of Colorado, published by Colorado State University Extension and recommended to me by former NMSU Bernalillo County Extension Horticulture Agent Graeme Davis, is great because there's a handy diagnostic key at the back of the book. I take this book with me to every site visit. You have to already know the tree species you're looking at to get started, then use the key's categories (affecting leaves, affecting smaller branches, affecting trunk, etc.) to narrow down the pest possibilities based on where you see problems in the plant.

For tree identification, I try to keep extra copies of the Arbor Day Foundation's booklet "What Tree Is That? A Guide to the More Common Trees Found in the Western U.S." But as of right now I've given my copies away. Luckily, there is an online version What Tree Is That?

I asked Urban and Community Forestry Program Manager for NM State Forestry Jennifer Dann what books she recommends for tree identification, and she suggested The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, not only because it is nicely laid out but also because it includes native and invasive plants. Many other field guides, while excellent, focus on one group or the other, not both.

While some people are good at taking care of plants and creating beautiful landscapes, I am proof that being a plant lover doesn't necessarily indicate a proclivity for landscape design. Luckily, some landscape designers also write helpful books. For every plant recommended in her book New Mexico Gardener's Guide, Judith Phillips includes a section on companion planting and design based on water and space requirements as well as on colors and bloom times. I'm so into plants with big, bright flowers that I tend to forget that the garden will look bare in the winter, and Phillips' comments help me keep that in mind. For example, "Standard buddleia [butterfly bush] needs the company of evergreens to compensate for the large gap it leaves in winter."

Image of small yellow flowers

Dr. Ashley Bennett, former NMSU Extension Integrated Pest Management Specialist, recommended all of the Xerces Society guide books, including Attracting Native Pollinators, which offers habitat design considerations to encourage native bees and butterflies in the garden. She also highly recommended The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, who is based here in Santa Fe. When I surveyed our new Extension Integrated Pest Management Specialist, Dr. Amanda Skidmore, she also highly recommended The Bees in Your Backyard, as well as Garden Insects of North America, another great book by Whitney Cranshaw and coauthor David Shetlar.

Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest, also written by a local author, Marcy Scott in Las Cruces, includes growing requirements, great photos, and tips on where to find less commonly sold species or how to grow them yourself from seed. Each plant description also includes the local hummingbird species that are particularly drawn to that flower or flower timing.

Of course, not all plant books are reference books. Last year, NMSU Extension Viticulture Specialist Dr. Gill Giese recommended The Life of a Leaf by Steven Vogel. Vogel describes the how's and the why's behind plant form and function, so it's science-y to be sure, but never boring. This year, Dr. Giese suggests What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.

I attended the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico's Land and Water Summit this week and took the opportunity to ask for more favorite gardening book input. Dr. Margaret Menache, Chairperson of the Albuquerque Garden Center's book club and volunteer extraordinaire, suggested Baker Morrow's Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens and Landscapes. Richard Pearce, Irrigation Efficiency Specialist for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, listed two books: Planting and Training: What, When, and How to Prune by DK Publishing and Yard Full of Sun by Scott Calhoun. Hunter Ten Broeck of WaterWise Landscapes recommends another book by Judith Phillips: Growing the Southwest Garden. And when I asked Judith Phillips herself what book she is most likely to recommend to young people who are interested in plants, without hesitation, she said Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Share your favorite plant books with me and I'll add them to the growing list (pun intended, as usual) at Desert Blooms. Visit the blog and search "library."

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

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